Consciousness is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Right up there with climate.
With AI taking off, tech experts are worried that intelligent machines will gain consciousness — within the next few years! Meanwhile, we experience life basically in our conscious minds, yet we have only the faintest inkling of how this mysterious phenomenon works, or even what it is. For these reasons, and more, it’s time to address the question: What is consciousness, really?
– Is human consciousness simply the physical bits of information processed within our brain’s circuitry? An electrochemical, living intelligence? Like AI only different?
– If AI surpasses human intelligence, what happens to us mere mortals? To we, the people?
– How does machine consciousness square with religious beliefs? Is spirituality simply an illusion? Is God a fantasy?
To examine these questions, a TechCast study used collective intelligence to combine background data and the best judgment from 30 experts. We’ve used this method for 20 years to forecast emerging technologies and social trends with good accuracy. For instance, TechCast published forecasts more than a decade ago that AI would take off in 2023.
The best way to make sense of these results is to sketch two different propositions describing implications of opposing views.
Proposition 1: AI dominates human consciousness
Yes, this is a stark statement, but it’s also the logical outcome of the view that sees no significant difference between human consciousness and intelligent forms of AI.
The belief underlying this view is that consciousness is the intelligence shown by any sufficiently complex system. The corollary belief is that human consciousness is simply an outcome of information in the brain. And since AI will soon have near infinite power to process information, some form of Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI) is likely to eclipse human intelligence. From this view, it follows that humans can expect to become inferior to AI, most jobs will be automated, and the vast powers of ASI could threaten humanity.
While this is an elegant theory, its implications are so impossible that they seem to refute the theory. For instance, sound solutions to the climate crisis are well known, but the obstacles are due to procrastination, self-interest, and the lack of political will. How could the most powerful ASI possibly overcome these utterly human foibles? Or could sheer machine intelligence reduce mass shootings? Reconcile opposing sides to the interminable conflict on abortion? In short, the most intelligent AI is not likely to rule the world.
I hope the point is clear. Intelligence — the ability to manage objective knowledge — is fundamentally different than the subjective ability to resolve the messy, intractable dilemmas that confound humans. Julian Taylor, Software Engineer at Sun Microsystems, highlighted the limits of AI: “No algorithm that I have devised has ever developed an unpredictable goal. This is simply not what these algorithmic systems do.” And Kurt Gödel, the famous scientist who proved his Incompleteness Theorem, concurred: “No conceivable collection of algorithms can possibly manifest human self-aware consciousness.”
The meaning of this limitation is profound — the most intelligent machine can’t be endowed with agency, the ability to exercise free will, to act independently. Yes, it’s almost given that AI will soon be able to model emotions, values, beliefs, and other human qualities. But they’ll be just that — simple simulations of human consciousness. Not the real thing. The most brilliant machine intelligence seems doomed to lack agency. For an everyday example, your GPS car navigation system may be brilliant at leading you somewhere, but you must tell it your destination. Only you have agency!
Of the endless brilliant robots and semi-conscious AI systems out there, none are capable of truly independent behavior. For a simple example, your pet Roomba may sweep your floors with great abandon, but only within its programmed limits. Cute, but it doesn’t have a conscious mind, really. No agency. ChatGPT? Nope. You have to tell it what to do. Even IBM’s powerhouse, Newton, able to beat the top chess masters — no agency. Without some dramatic as yet unknown breakthrough in AI, the concept of machine intelligence with human consciousness remains only a theory lacking support.
Yet almost all AI experts are convinced that AI superpowers will eclipse humans. Yuval Harari leads this wave of fear with his belief that AI is an “alien species that could trigger humanity’s extinction.” This blind faith fuels the techno hype reminiscent of the mass hysteria we saw when Y2K threatened to destroy civilization at the year 2000 AD. As the critical turn of the century passed — nothing happened! This study provides a sober vision that is realistic. It’s time to think of AI as simply a powerful tool to be managed carefully.
This impasse in the logic of AI superiority leads to a second proposition that resolves this contradiction.
Proposition 2: Human spirit transcends AI
The lack of AI agency stands in sharp contrast to what Webster’s dictionary calls “human spirit.” We could call it the “self,” or we could think of it as the “soul.” Whatever it is, knowing that something in human consciousness is more powerful than information helps make sense of our world today.
A solid majority of our experts think that mood shifts, altered awareness, free will, and other states of mind transcend the physical body. Nobel Laureate Roger Sperry summed it up, “The mind acts as an independent force.”
This view also affirms the belief of all religions that humans are spiritual beings. Albert Einstein himself said, “The most … profound emotion we can experience is the mystical … some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe.” And cognitive scientist David Chalmers thinks, “We are likely to discover that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, like space, time and gravity.”
Once we accept this special role of human spirit, the dilemmas noted above fade into a coherent story of the future. Sure, ASI is almost certain to vastly exceed our feeble ability to manage the overwhelming complexity of modern life. But that’s okay because we’ll be there to guide it. To design the systems using principles that ensure their safe behavior. To monitor them carefully and take action to avert problems.
Not only can we manage this AI-human symbiosis, the resulting freedom from today’s mind-numbing knowledge work will unleash even more human freedom. More creativity. More awareness. If we can summon the courage and global consciousness to surmount the enormous challenges ahead, we might even see the flowering of human spirit.
Written by William E. Halal.
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